You can't explain grief to someone who hasn't felt it. If you've lost someone close to you, you understand this: You couldn't go back in time and explain what the loss feels like to your past self. Language can't bridge that gap. Grief makes you new again, knocks you to your foundations and ensures that you can't ever rebuild in quite the same way.
I've read plenty of books about grief and about coming through grief in my life, but I've never before encountered a book that gets it as right as Kevin Young's Book of Hours (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95). Just shy of 200 pages, it's long for a book of poetry but too short to be a novel. It's one of those rare reading experiences that I recognized, even as I read it, as a book I was going to buy over and over again, to give as a gift to friends who've had that certain hole cut out of them, the loss that you can recognize from a distance, even in the happiest of times.
The most accurate way I can describe Book of Hours to you is as a document of grief, but that makes it sound dark, gothy, brooding, something overwrought, and that's not an accurate or fair description. Instead, it's more of a howl, an inside-out yawp from a wounded animal that will stick with you forever. Book of Hours opens with an array of poems, in mostly chronological order, documenting Young's life, from the time he first discovers his father's death in a hunting accident to the point when his father's death becomes history to him, a stone sarcophagus in the middle of every room he visits, unchangeable and looming, a part of the scenery.
"It's a wonder the world/keeps its whirling," Young writes early in Book of Hours, as he stays shuttered in his father's house, trying to get ready for the funeral:
Strange how you keep on
& done with—or for—
if not every day
anymore, each morning
a sabbath of sundering,
then hours still arrive
I realize nothing
can beg you back—
nor return to us days
If you've lost a person, you remember those horrible gray days in the beginning of the grief, when the loss has to be remembered again and again, like a fly smashing into a windowpane. Reading Young's poetry doesn't feel like dwelling, like lingering on the hurt the way you keep touching a mysterious bruise on your elbow. You're down there with him, and he's down there with you, and you're enduring together. Every line read is another tiny step further away from heartbreak and toward a more agreeable place.
Most of these poems are only a page or two. A few are much shorter. They're almost all composed of very short lines choked with dashes and ampersands, like someone gasping for breath between bone-deep wails. But together, they form a narrative, a memoir of what it's like to come through to the other side. "O how I want/to waste my heart/on things that don't/matter much," Young writes in "Flag Day," before wishing to have his father back again, "here, not silent, only/quiet, as before."
Once you get past those first raw pages, Book of Hours splinters into other chapters. "The Book of Forgetting" is about the blessed passage of time, when life starts moving again. You realize, with a curious mix of gratitude and fear, that the world still turns—a year later, "Even the shortest grasses/now are taller/than he is"—and that life, somehow, continues.
Though Book of Hours doesn't provide any platitudes or cloying niceties, Young walks us through the days and years after the death, culminating in a flabbergasting poem titled "Nativity." It's a juggernaut of a run-on sentence about the birth of Young's son from "your mother's pursed, throbbing/purpled power," from "animal smell/and peat, breath and sweat/and mulch-matter." The birth of his son doesn't get him any closer to replacing his father, and Young never once raises that possibility; the bereaved understand that this isn't a matter of rough arithmetic, of swapping one unit out for another. But that accumulation of days is what counts, and Book of Hours eventually crescendos into a simple request, framed in the form of a statement, that is an invitation back to the world of the living. A few paragraphs ago, I called Book of Hours a document of grief. That's true, but it's also true that the act of reading transforms it, through some alchemical origami, into a book of life.